Story by Lauren Cramer
When Laura Waters purchased a four-acre farm in North Saanich 10 years ago, her original goal was to grow Christmas trees, a harvest that takes six years for each planting. Four years into the project she changed her mind.
“It bothered me that I was growing these trees just to cut them down,” the Saanich Peninsula entrepreneur confided. “All you’re doing for the first six years is mowing the grass in between the trees for two to three hours a week, and the trees also require a lot of care and pruning. I thought, ‘All we’re going to do is cut them down?’”
Waters was determined to find a more sustainable, renewable use for her Douglas firs, one that would see the trees’ bounty enjoyed far beyond the Christmas period.
“I knew they were citrusy and had a floral tone, and that distillers and brewers were using the fir tips,” she recalled. “West Coast First Nations have traditionally made tea from the fir tips, too. I wanted to figure out how to do something different from what everyone else was doing and create a non-alcoholic product.”
A floral and paper designer with a passion for cooking, Laura began experimenting in her kitchen. Blackberry bushes were heavy with fruit, so she started with a blackberry vinegar. The Douglas fir product line followed quickly, with a vinegar and a sparkling fir “shrub” — an effervescent, bubbly drink akin to lemonade but tastier.
Over the years that ensued, more fruit-infused vinegars emerged as Laura’s sense of adventure and creativity grew. Today, the selection of innovative flavours includes peppered nasturtium, pear anise, plum basil and apple, cardamom and cinnamon. New flavours are added each year as old ones are retired, and all the vinegars are made with sulphite-free Canadian white vinegar. The final products have a fruity zing, perfect for salads, marinades or a refreshing drink when mixed with soda water.
|A bottle of Fir Essence. Don Denton photography
“My Douglas firs have given me a whole new palate to cook with,” she said from Snowdon House Gourmet & Gifts, the farm shop that stands steps from her beloved firs.
Laura has supplemented her product line with beer and cider bread mixes, which make a tasty homemade bread when soda or shrub is added to the mix. There are herb packages for salmon toppings, soup mixes that make you wish for wintry days, a tomato and Douglas fir seasoning and a “fir and fire” Brie topper that transforms the basic appetizer into a tantalizing, irresistible dish.
Islanders quickly took note of her delicious products and demand escalated quickly. Today Snowdon House gourmet items are sold online, in 35 retail stores across British Columbia and at craft and farmers’ markets. Victoria Distillers is making cocktails with Laura’s Douglas fir shrub and participants in her cooking classes expand their culinary repertoire with dishes that broaden their horizons and include Laura’s ingredients.
|A fir infused waffle with brie topper and other fir based products. Don Denton photography
On a recent visit to the gift shop, I watched as Laura poured a full bottle of blueberry vinegar into her sorbet machine. A whirring sound filled the room and 15 minutes later we were sampling the cool nuances of blueberry sorbet. Fully aware that most home chefs don’t know how widely her products can be used, Laura has developed a number of recipes incorporating her fruit-infused and Douglas fir vinegar.
When she’s not creating new recipes, she’s making gift cards and gift packaging with beautiful, delicate designs. Look closely at her paper products and you’ll see recycled gold and silver leaf, petals, bark, recycled aluminum cans, spices and even soya silk, a by-product of tofu.
On top of new product development, store sales, paper-making and Douglas fir tip harvesting, Laura also runs a bed and breakfast from her farm. A tireless woman, her life has not been free of adversity. But if there’s one thing Laura has learned along the way, it’s that “you can cook your way out of any mess! I love sharing what we make on the farm,” she reflects. “I really like people, and I love to cook, garden and create art, so the whole thing fuels all my passions.”